what’s in a name

Can sound & music promote wellness? Go to a kirtan concert & find out.

illustration by jillian tamaki, www.jilliantamaki.com

excerpted from the print magazine…

“All music, in one way or another, is therapeutic because it can heal. Behind this healing… [is] the notion that sound is God – that sound is holy, and therefore capable of restoring wholeness.”
– Russill Paul, from The Yoga of Sound

I unlock the door to my apartment and drop my keys and backpack. My long day at the hospital is over and I’m completely wiped out. The work is intense and demanding: a student placement leading an expressive arts therapy group in the inpatient eating disorders program.

Eating disorders are some of the most complicated and multilayered illnesses I’ve ever witnessed – the body is in danger because of the psyche’s own attack on it. Proper treatment involves rehabilitation of both the physical self and the psychological/emotional self. In our studies, we place equal emphasis on the visual arts, movement, drama, writing, and music as vehicles for therapy.

I’ve arrived home with just enough time for a quick dinner before heading out again to a kirtan evening. I collapse on the couch and my eyes drop closed. Why would I go out again?

It’s kirtan. You don’t just skip kirtan.

Okay, okay. With a considerable push, I fuel up and am back out the door. Half an hour later I’m in an enormous ballet studio, seated near the front, propped up on a cushion and watching a team of twelve musicians organize themselves for what looks like a rock concert, not a kirtan. I see the typical instruments – harmonium, tabla, hand drum – standing alongside an electric guitar, an electric keyboard and an electric bass. That’s a lot of electricity. I begin to wonder if I should have stayed on my couch. I’m a bit of a purist about kirtan – the electric thing seems all wrong. Plus, the musicians seem glamorized. Before I know it, I’m off on an inner, fuming rant about the looming danger of kirtan losing its integrity to fads, money and show. But the first chords of the harmonium hush my mind.

A bindi-wearing blonde woman leans forward to speak into a microphone. “This chant is to Sita and her love Ram.” The room fills with warm sound: her voice, singing the Names of God – Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Ram, Hanuman. The response rushes past me like a flock of birds, a full rich bloom of voices: Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Ram, Hanuman. I look backward and realize the room has filled with other chanters. I am stirred, humbled. I sing.

“It’s the Name, the repetition of the Name; that’s what does it,” Raghu, a long-time friend of and occasional drummer for Krishna Das, once told me after a kirtan. “People love to sing, so they’ll sing along, not knowing what to expect, and then the Name suddenly takes them over. It’s our own Name we’re repeating, the Name of our true nature. It resonates deeply, and something happens.”

Something, indeed, is happening, right here in the ballet studio. My skepticism about this particular kirtan loses ground with every repetition of the Name. What matters, I realize, is the Name itself, and the opportunity to chant it in community. I am chanting and so is everyone around me; I am buoyed by the vibrations and I add my own. Already, I can sense that being here is rapidly promoting a turnaround in my general well-being. This is why I got off the couch, because I know that creating sound also creates healing.

As the melody builds and peaks, I have the image of finding a cave and crawling inside, into a place of deeper and deeper devotion – both utterly still and in-whirling-motion, both like dusk and like noon sunshine, both joyful and teary. I also have the sense that I could resist the pull of the Name, keep my eyes open, stay out of the cave, and become annoyed by the electric keyboard. But by saying yes instead of no, I begin to shed a thick layer of darkness and exhaustion.

Shara Claire is a bhakti yogini. She also teaches hand-drumming and percussion classes in the Toronto area, and is managing editor of EGS Press. Her writing has appeared in POIESIS, The Sun, good girl, and elsewhere. She is currently studying expressive arts therapy in Toronto.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life